Clover – Part 1

Robert Wood

 

During the early 18th century the German farmers of Southeastern Pennsylvania continued to use the crops and rotation methods of the old country.  The money crops were cereal grains: wheat, rye, and oats with sometimes spelt-wheat and barley. These were rotated with buckwheat, flax and sometimes American maize which the Dutchmen called “Welshkan”—wild corn.  Grain crops and flax vitiated the soil, so generally after every six year rotation the field was left fallow for a number of years to grow to weeds which somewhat restored fertility for the next round of crops. However, the soil never totally rebounded and yields over time steadily declined.

In those days, hay, the over-winter fodder for the farm’s livestock, was not a field crop, rather it was cultivated in irrigated meadows. Native meadow grass, sometimes additionally seeded with timothy hay, was cut with a scythe and delivered by wheelbarrow to the meadow’s edge where it was loaded onto a cart for transport to the hay barrack or “bottom” barn. (The large Swiss bank barns which we associate with “old” farms appeared in the early 19th century.)  Often the scanty quantity of fodder limited the livestock a farm could manage.

About 1790 the Germans slowly began to adopt the English practice of sowing upland fields in hay, usually timothy grass and, most importantly, red clover. Clover is not a grass, but a legume. Certain bacteria which grow symbiotically on its roots fix all important nitrogen, so it essentially makes its own fertilizer. Clover hay is among the best, nutrient rich and high in protein. Additionally, sown to clover, a field’s fertility is restored more effectively than letting it lie fallow. Also, with the adoption of upland field hay, those farms which lacked meadows could raise winter fodder for livestock.

A hindrance to the new clover culture was the poor quality of seed, often imported from England; and, not realized at that time, soil acidity as clover wants a slightly alkaline soil.

In large part, the introduction of clover was then made possible by the new practice of spreading lime or gypsum, called “land plaster,” on fields. Both of these soil conditioners added much needed calcium and most importantly they are strongly alkaline, neutralizing soil acidity. At first gypsum was imported from Nova Scotia. In 1816 gypsum coming into Philadelphia from Nova Scotia amounted to 19,452 tons. In addition, many more tons came from quarries developed in New York State. Although much of this went to manufacture plaster, much also was spread on fields. Gypsum is so strongly alkaline that soil treatment required only several bushels per acre.

Lime soon replaced gypsum. Limestone deposits lay close to the surface throughout the three original counties: Philadelphia (which included the present Montgomery County), Bucks, and Chester. Additionally, much of Berks County  has limestone bedrock. To be applied to fields as a soil conditioner and plant nutrient, crushed limestone had to be fired to a red heat for several days in a limekiln. The roasting process broke the limestone down to a highly alkaline, chemically active powder that was thinly spread on fields.

Agricultural lime In 1835 cost twenty-five to thirty-five cents per bushel at the kiln and was applied at the rate of about fifteen to twenty bushels per acre. It required about fifteen cords of wood to fire a kiln yielding 1000 bushels of lime. In the earliest period the lime kilns were often cooperative enterprises. Neighbors joined in hauling limestone and wood and tending the fire; the product was divided among them.

The Pennsylvania Dutch word for clover is “Glee,” pronounced “glaa” (long a). Curiously, this same word used as an adjective means small. Perhaps clover was so called since it does not grow tall, knee high at best, and the seed is especially tiny. A quart or two will sow an acre. Fagleysville blacksmith John Markley’s 1805 day book often records selling  “ein quaed klaver saame”—“a quart clover seed.”

Collecting clover seed, however, was a difficult chore. Red clover blossoms shrivel and dry to a leathery pod which contains the tiny seeds. There were various ways to collect the dried flower pods. Some attached a bag-like cloth to the bottom three fingers of the grain cradle and topped the pods from the stalks. Some employed a sort of low wooden wheeled cart with fingers in front that pulled the dried flowers and deposited them in the cart as it was pulled through the field. (The Mercer Museum in Doylestown has one of these, perhaps the only one in existence). Finally, there were special forged hand rakes that could pluck the pods and collect them in an attached pouch. The Goschenhoppen Museum has such a rake.

Thrashing the seeds from the leathery pod was an equally irksome chore. At first the grain flail was employed, but it took a mighty lot of flailing. Then a few enterprising mill owners adapted water powered  grist mill with different stones to shred the leathery pods without crushing the seeds. Clover mills, as they were known, used “bottom runner” stones. The top stone was stationary and the bottom one spun. The top stone had an opening about a foot wide through which the seed pods were introduced.

The late Elmer Graber Stahl notes in his book “Mills of the Goschenhoppen Region”: These pods, containing the seeds, were taken to a clover mill equipped with special stones which broke open the pods and released the seeds. The open pods and seeds were then put through a fanning mill to separate the seeds from the pods. The clover seed mill was usually installed in an existing gristmill….This was not a big business because it did not take much seed to the acre.”

Clover mills ran but a short time as commercial clover seed became more readily available. In modern times clover has been supplanted by alfalfa which is an equally rich legume and produces more per acre.

Next week, part 2